The letter still exists, tucked away in a box with the keg taps
and Greek memorabilia of my college days. It arrived on May 27,
1993. The night before I had gone out with my best friend to
celebrate his 21st birthday. We were two college juniors
confronting the reality of 9-to-5 futures. When I returned to my
University of Delaware dorm in the morning, I found an envelope
with the NBA insignia in the corner. "Maybe they want you,
Pearl," my roommate joked. "The Sixers need help."
About two months earlier, at the urging of some fellow staffers
at The Review, the college newspaper, I had informed the NBA of
my intention to leave school early to pursue a pro basketball
career. "I have nothing more to gain from playing at the
University of Delaware," I wrote to commissioner David Stern. "I
believe I have what it takes to make it in your league."
I identified myself as a 6'2", 175-pound shooting guard. No lie,
this. I said I had played at Delaware--and, indeed, I had, as a
proud member of the Tools, two-time intramural runners-up. I
also ran a year of track and cross-country.
Dear Mr. Pearlman:
As you know, the NBA requires any undergraduate basketball
player who desires to become eligible for the NBA draft to
forego, completely and irreversibly, his remaining collegiate
This will confirm that, by letter dated March 24, 1993, you
notified the NBA of your decision to renounce your remaining
collegiate basketball eligibility with the intention of inducing
an NBA team to select you in the NBA draft scheduled to take
place on June 30, 1993.
If the foregoing does not coincide with your understanding of
the purpose and effect of your March 24, 1993 letter, please
contact me in writing at the above address at least ten (10)
days prior to the draft.
Joel M. Litvin
Suddenly the blood rushed to my head. Not only was I going to
duck out of school a year early, but I would also be making big
bucks! Everyone knew Chris Webber would be the top selection,
but after that, it was a toss-up. Shawn Bradley. Anfernee
Hardaway. Jamal Mashburn. Jeff Pearlman. Two years earlier the
Washington Bullets had used their first pick on LaBradford
Smith. If they could spend $3.45 million for four years on a
future CBA player, why not go cheap for an unknown like me?
A week later there was a message on my telephone answering
machine from Rod Thorn, the NBA's senior vice president of
basketball operations. "Call me," he said. "We need to talk."
Thorn is a man with big concerns. Was he worried that I was too
much for the league to handle? Like Dennis Rodman, I was an
outlaw. I had a pierced ear; I shaved my head. Or perhaps Thorn
wanted to warn me of the sharklike agents waiting for future
stars to swim into their jaws.
"Hello, is Mr. Thorn in? This is Jeff Pearlman, from Delaware."
"Mr. Thorn isn't in," said the voice at NBA headquarters, "but
our director of security would like to speak to you."
"Mr. Pearlman, this is Larry Richardson. We'd like to know if
you're for real."
Ever notice how dreams have a way of imploding? There would be
no Air Pearl Jams, no Wheaties box with my picture, no Letterman
gigs. "Did you really play at Delaware?" Richardson asked.
Like all scam artists, I did what had to be done. "Yes," I said,
thinking of track, the Tools, Frisbee outside my dorm.
"Nobody here has heard of you. Do you really think you're one of
the best players in the world?"
"Not yet, but I can be. I think with proper development and a
few other things"--a drastic reduction in basket height, the
outbreak of a mysterious plague that renders all other NBA
players clinically blind--"I can be something special."
"Have you thought about the CBA?"
"Yes." Many times--especially when I was 12 and got free cotton
candy at an Albany Patroons game.
"How about Europe?"
"Who hasn't thought about that?"
Richardson, though skeptical, said that my name would be sent to
all 27 NBA teams with the other early entries and that I should
get an agent to help negotiate a possible contract. He wished me
luck, adding, "You may need it."
The draft was June 30. I sat in front of the television for four
hours. Late in the second round, the Indiana Pacers took a
chance on a Delaware player. "This guy is a very smart pick,"
Hubie Brown commented on TNT. "I think Spencer Dunkley could be
a surprise. A real sleeper."
For a moment--and this isn't just flowery prose to cap off a
story--I closed my eyes and dreamed that Hubie had said something
slightly different. "Jeff Pearlman could be a surprise," Brown
was saying. "A real sleeper."
Jeff Pearlman, who writes sports for The (Nashville) Tennessean,
still waits to be drafted.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: BRIAN AJHAR [Men looking at short basketball player on ladder hiding behind cutout of larger basketball player]